Being a Physics Major

For the discussion of the sciences. Physics problems, chemistry equations, biology weirdness, it all goes here.

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catdaddy
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Being a Physics Major

Postby catdaddy » Sat Jan 29, 2011 9:12 am UTC

So as an older high school student, I've been wondering a lot about studying physics when I get to college next year. I figured this forum might be best to answer some questions about it. Anything about majoring in physics is good. Classes, difficulty, work needed, and even opportunities after college and stuff.

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Dopefish
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Re: Being a Physics Major

Postby Dopefish » Sat Jan 29, 2011 5:07 pm UTC

(School forum might be more appropriate, as I believe theres at least one thread with similar material there. But physics is a science obviously so this probably doesn't hurt.)

Anyhow...I hope you're comfortable with math. With things like forces being vectors, you end up needing/using a great deal of vector calculus (which you'll of course be taught during your first year or two of uni most likely) which has a tendency to be a lot less intuitive/easy than the single variable calculus that high schools usually cover.

The work needed is probably not a lot different than any other major, it just primarily takes the form of math rather than essay writing for example. Assignments can quite realistically involve problems that will take several pages of math each. I believe my last electrodynamics assignment was about a dozen pages long when completed and was 5 questions (and I bleieve I've had 30 page assignments too in the past). This is probably in contrast to the high school apprach where you might get a dozen questions, but they all have solutions that are a couple lines long.

You're probably going to want to read the textbook(s) somewhat more than highschool life may have required of you, since simple 'look for boxed equation, then plug in numbers' rarely works for university stuff. (Well...maybe for first year.)

Anyway, I haven't gotten to the after college/university stage yet myself so I can't comment to much on that, but if you can get past the sometimes horrifying math involved, I do think it's enjoyable and quite satisfying when it all comes together and you get an answer that makes sense, so if you enjoy physics I'd certainly recommend it.

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ChicagoPianoTuner
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Re: Being a Physics Major

Postby ChicagoPianoTuner » Sat Jan 29, 2011 7:53 pm UTC

OP, your post doesn't have any questions. Was there anything in particular you were curious about?

Being a physics major was a great decision for me. My recommendations would be this:

-Try to make friends with people in your course as soon as possible. You can, of course, do everything in all four years (and beyond) on your own, but life is much easier when you have someone to work with on really long and daunting assignments. One of my best professors told me that students learn more from their peers than they do from their professors, and he was absolutely correct, in my experience. On this same note, you have to get over any fear of "being wrong," especially when you work with your peers. Just admit when you don't understand something and discuss it. I had a few friends who were too embarrassed to do so, and it was very frustrating. When you get to quantum mechanics, nobody will understand anything anyway, so you might as well get used to it.

-Make sure that you have an absolute stranglehold on everything you learn in your first year. Force yourself to have as deep an understanding as possible on Newtonian mechanics and basic E&M stuff, otherwise you'll be in the weeds when you get to those topics the next time around. I made this mistake myself. I was always really good at DOING physics PROBLEMS, but my lack of conceptual understanding kicked my ass when it came to harder mechanics and E&M problems because the equations were harder to use without some sort of intuition as to what they were describing. Teachers don't always challenge students with conceptual questions, so you have to challenge yourself.

-The main piece of advice I give to new physics students (which almost none of them heed) is to read the textbook before lectures as well as after. If you see the material before your professor mentions a topic for the first time, you'll be that much better off. Pre-reading is a common practice (or so I'm told) in many eastern countries. It is very beneficial, but requires self-motivation.

-Do more than just follow directions in your lab. Try to connect everything to your lecture and your every day experiences. Labs are a dreadful waste of time if you simply fill in some blanks and make some graphs.

-This last one is university dependent, but start doing research as early as possible. I joined a research group during the beginning of my second year, and it was great for a multitude of reasons.

Enjoy!

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Re: Being a Physics Major

Postby jjfortherear » Sat Jan 29, 2011 8:05 pm UTC

Best decision I ever made. If you'd rather do physics problems than write papers (who the fuck wouldn't), you can't go wrong. I don't know what it's like to not like physics, so this is just a guess, but you should probably only do it if you really do like it, cause there are a couple topics which won't quite be your cup of tea (thermodynamics for me), and you'll be able to get through them as long as you remember you'll be getting on to more enjoyable stuff afterward.
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catdaddy
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Re: Being a Physics Major

Postby catdaddy » Sat Jan 29, 2011 8:51 pm UTC

Whoops, I was wondering about which forum to place this in. No I don't really have any specific questions, because I can't really think of any. Maybe what's the difference between physics majoring and engineering majoring? Those are really my big options for college.

Well the prospect of having multipage questions sounds downright exciting. I love a good problem, though I suppose I'm being naive and will find them to be much less enjoyable. C'est la vie. I am quite good at math, and math majoring was my other idea. Haven't had any problems with this AP calculus class, so I figure the math will be easy enough in the beginning. And I do thoroughly enjoy physics.

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Re: Being a Physics Major

Postby BirdMav » Sun Jan 30, 2011 12:30 am UTC

If doing calculus and physics on weekends is fun to you, then you are in the right field. Ever since I started having fun in calculus, the problems have been relatively easy, you have to do a ton of it to learn the tricks of the trade. So far differential equations has been easy but I just started and have yet to take multi-variable yet but sounds like fun. If you are going into a math related field or physics related field, I suggest learning integration to perfection, I mean all of it, trig and U substitution, integration by parts, partial fractions, logarithmic functions, inverse trig functions, the whole spiel. Pay attention in class and do a ton of problems and you'll find it getting easier and easier and more fun since solving a complicated differential integration equation will give you a self-esteem boost (at least it does for me). And the main thing is, don't get discouraged, if you are all stressed out because you can't solve a problem, tackle it later with a fresh mind-set or ask a friend or professor during office hours.
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Re: Being a Physics Major

Postby ^_^ » Wed Feb 02, 2011 1:21 pm UTC

I am currently studying both engineering and physics... And there is a world of difference between them, really. Whilst the endless practical applications and potential job opportunities of engineering are a huge positive, physics is so conceptually amazing. Just having the ability to somewhat [if very slightly] understand how the world works around you is phenomenal.
Don't worry, you will encounter the joys of multi-page problems in both majors... Though engineering may turn out more like a 6 month project accompanied by 100 page report :P
It really depends. In physics you will cover thermodynamics, electromagnetism, optics, quantum physics, astrophysics etc.
Engineering is much broader, depending on what you would be interested in majoring in. If you love physics, I'm thinking maybe something more along the lines of mechanical or civil than software, chemical etc? So you could be learning about the forces and reactions of structures, materials, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, energy systems, manufacturing issues etc.
Which option interests you more?
Or you could just do both, like me :D And between the two degrees, you learn a significant amount of math, which is always a bonus.

Edit: Just realised you were also asking about workload and future opportunities. Soooo in terms of workload, they are both rather full-on and really should require work ethic significantly greater than mine. But yeah, employment wise, engineering generally presents better/more plentiful opportunities, realistically.

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Re: Being a Physics Major

Postby doogly » Thu Feb 03, 2011 2:14 pm UTC

catdaddy wrote:Whoops, I was wondering about which forum to place this in. No I don't really have any specific questions, because I can't really think of any. Maybe what's the difference between physics majoring and engineering majoring? Those are really my big options for college.

Cultural observation:
Engineers do all their homework on engineer paper. It is yellow, has some holes on the left for a binder. The ruling is tight and graph papery, with clear red margins. Everything is done on this paper.
Physicists work on blank printer paper. It's cheap and doesn't tell you where to write.
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eternauta3k
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Re: Being a Physics Major

Postby eternauta3k » Thu Feb 03, 2011 2:26 pm UTC

doogly wrote:Cultural observation:
Engineers do all their homework on engineer paper. It is yellow, has some holes on the left for a binder. The ruling is tight and graph papery, with clear red margins. Everything is done on this paper.
Physicists work on blank printer paper. It's cheap and doesn't tell you where to write.
Is this a US thing, or maybe something you do later in your career? I only know one guy* who writes in blank paper. Maybe we're all actually engineering students?

*Last year our teachers asked him to at least keep the page vertical (portrait)
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Re: Being a Physics Major

Postby gorcee » Thu Feb 03, 2011 7:13 pm UTC

doogly wrote:
catdaddy wrote:Whoops, I was wondering about which forum to place this in. No I don't really have any specific questions, because I can't really think of any. Maybe what's the difference between physics majoring and engineering majoring? Those are really my big options for college.

Cultural observation:
Engineers do all their homework on engineer paper. It is yellow, has some holes on the left for a binder. The ruling is tight and graph papery, with clear red margins. Everything is done on this paper.
Physicists work on blank printer paper. It's cheap and doesn't tell you where to write.


As an engineering major, I turned in all my homework on the back of the cover sheets that the university printers generated for every single print job (and which people just dumped in a recycle box).

The myth of the clean-cut, orderly engineer is old.

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Re: Being a Physics Major

Postby Game_boy » Thu Feb 03, 2011 11:40 pm UTC

I'm currently doing Physics but I'm concerned that a) it's going to get far too hard. I'm already lost in some of the lectures intended to be school revision, in the first year and b) there's no job opportunities compared to something like Engineering. Research doesn't pay anything (in the UK at least) until you get tenure much later on.
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ChicagoPianoTuner
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Re: Being a Physics Major

Postby ChicagoPianoTuner » Fri Feb 04, 2011 2:18 pm UTC

Game_boy wrote:I'm currently doing Physics but I'm concerned that a) it's going to get far too hard. I'm already lost in some of the lectures intended to be school revision, in the first year and b) there's no job opportunities compared to something like Engineering. Research doesn't pay anything (in the UK at least) until you get tenure much later on.


Physics is definitely not the field you choose to make good money after you graduate. Sure, you CAN make good money, but it's much easier with a computer science or engineering degree. If you're behind, get a tutor now. You're only going to fall more behind as time goes on. I'm speaking with first-hand experience.

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Re: Being a Physics Major

Postby You, sir, name? » Fri Feb 04, 2011 6:16 pm UTC

eternauta3k wrote:
doogly wrote:Cultural observation:
Engineers do all their homework on engineer paper. It is yellow, has some holes on the left for a binder. The ruling is tight and graph papery, with clear red margins. Everything is done on this paper.
Physicists work on blank printer paper. It's cheap and doesn't tell you where to write.
Is this a US thing, or maybe something you do later in your career? I only know one guy* who writes in blank paper. Maybe we're all actually engineering students?

*Last year our teachers asked him to at least keep the page vertical (portrait)


In moving from engineering to physics in Sweden, I've seen a pronounced shift from engineer paper to printer paper. I still use the former, but I really don't follow the grid.
I edit my posts a lot and sometimes the words wrong order words appear in sentences get messed up.


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